Today I am delighted to join the blog tour for Edward Wilson’s Portrait of the Spy as a Young Man. I have an extract from the book to share with you all and thank Midas PR and Publisher Arcadia for including me in the tour. Here’s what the book is all about:
About the Book
1941: a teenage William Catesby leaves Cambridge to join the army and support the war effort. Parachuted into Occupied France as an SOE officer, he witnesses tragedies and remarkable feats of bravery during the French Resistance.
2014: now in his nineties, Catesby recounts his life to his granddaughter for the first time. Their interviews weave together the historical, the personal and the emotional, skipping across different decades and continents to reveal a complex and conflicted man.
Catesby’s incredible story recounts a life of spying and the trauma of war, but also lost love, yearning, and hope for the future.
From the Book
Gare de Limoges-Bénédictins: May 1943
It was turning into the worst of all nightmares. As soon as the flow of disembarked passengers ground to halt, William Catesby knew there was trouble ahead – and, when he saw the blue berets, he realised they were in serious danger. The malice française, despite their smart new uniforms – blue berets and jackets, brown shirts and boots with gaiters – were not the sharpest of cops, but they made up for stupidity with brutality. They were recruited from prisons and the ranks of unsuccessful petty criminals. Joining the milice meant you were exempt from being deported to work in Germany and had plenty of non-rationed food. The most frightening thing was that these ex-criminals had the power to arrest and torture.
Catesby and the new wireless operator, a Frenchwoman recently infiltrated by RAF Lysander, had excellent fake identity cards and supporting documents. He was worried, but hoped they could bluff their way past a milice cretin. Stay calm and you can do it. Then Catesby’s heart sank. Oh, shit! There were other uniforms at the end of the train platform – and they weren’t wearing gaiters and blue trousers, but polished jackboots and a black diamond patch emblazoned with SD on the lower left arm of their field grey tunics. Sicherheitsdienst. The radio transmitter that Catesby was carrying was disguised by a brown leather case to look like an ordinary piece of luggage. The problem was its weight. It was bloody heavy – more than twenty kilos, which made pretending it was an ordinary travel bag difficult. But that problem no longer mattered. Catesby and his radio operator were about to be arrested and tortured.
He wished he had put his cyanide pill in his jacket pocket. He feared that he would break under questioning. Many stronger agents did. Catesby made a quick mental inventory of those who would be arrested if he broke. If, however, he managed to resist for a day or two, they might be warned and have a chance to go into hiding. But what weighed on him most was the secret that had been entrusted to him during his brief visit to London. Why oh why had the major briefing him at SOE HQ confided such a sensitive and important secret? And to him, Catesby, a mere underling in the scheme of things? The major suggested he needed to know about it to better appreciate the role of the Resistance in the coming months. Or was the major just showing off? The fact that the allied invasion of Europe would take place between June and September 1943 at the Pas-de-Calais was a secret that Catesby would gladly excise from his brain if he had a drill and scalpel. If the Gestapo tortured it out of him, they would have extracted a crown jewel.
Catesby cursed himself for having volunteered for Special Operations Executive – an ordinary death on the battlefield would have been quicker for him and less costly for the allies. An SOE death meant horrific torture – followed by years in a concentration camp and eventual execution. He then made up his mind. It would be his last act of decency before breaking under torture. Catesby whispered to his companion without looking at her. ‘Pretend you don’t know me. Move forward now. I will lag behind. You must get out of the station before they search me.’
She ignored him and said, ‘Put the transmitter on top of your head.’
‘Don’t argue. Do as I say and do it now!’
The new radio operator, who looked about forty, was old enough to be Catesby’s mother – and radiated both sensuality and authority. She was stunningly beautiful with expensively coiffured blond hair. Something in Catesby instinctually obeyed and he hefted the radio on to his head. It was, actually, a lot easier carrying the heavy lump of coils, batteries and accessories this way than by his side. For a second he gave a grim smile at how silly he must look.
Meanwhile, the wireless operator was shouting her head off in fluent German. ‘Schnell! We have a captured terrorist radio transmitter and need to get to Abwehr HQ immediately.’
Catesby had to run to keep up with her as she hurtled towards the German security police with an angry frown. The NCO in charge bore a confused look on his face. One of the milice, who obviously didn’t understand German, seemed to be asking what was going on. The German NCO gestured him away and addressed Catesby’s companion. ‘How can I help? My superiors told me nothing about this.’
‘They said there would be a car waiting. We’re already late – and this transmitter has an encryption device that urgently needs decoding. Where is that fucking car you promised?’
The NCO was clearly intimidated.
‘Who is your immediate superior?’ shouted the woman.
The NCO whispered the name of a Gestapo junior officer.
‘I know that name. Captain Barbie mentioned him to me when he said he was arranging a car.’
The NCO visibly shook at the mention of the name Barbie. ‘I think it best,’ he said, ‘that you take our car to avoid further delay.’
The woman nodded her head in exasperation. ‘Yes, that would be a good idea.’
The NCO summoned a tall languid soldier who wore ordinary Wehrmacht field grey without a Sicherheitsdienst badge. ‘Take these people to Abwehr HQ immediately. Drive as quickly as possible.’
Catesby and his companion followed the soldier out of Limoges station on to the forecourt. The car, a requisitioned Citroën Traction Avant – the wheeled booty most prized by the German occupiers – was gleaming in the drizzle. The driver opened a rear door and gave a perfunctory heel click as Catesby and the female wireless operator, who was still angry and demanding, settled themselves on to the back seat.
The driver seemed to know his way around Limoges and headed off to where, Catesby assumed, the Abwehr HQ was located. He wondered what they were going to do next and knew that his companion was thinking the same thing. She leaned forward and tapped the driver on the shoulder.
‘Can you turn left at the next street?’
‘But, gnädige Frau, that isn’t the way to the Abwehr.’
‘The cryptologist we are meeting works directly for the Sicherheitsdienst. He is not a member of the Abwehr – I am sure you realise there are issues…’
‘I have heard rumours.’
‘Then keep those rumours to yourself – as well as the location to which you are taking us.’
The driver nodded and Catesby smiled. The rivalry and bad blood between the Abwehr intelligence service and the German security services were well known – and played upon by SOE and the Resistance.
Even though the woman hardly knew Limoges, she gave the impression of being a born native as she guided the driver through a bewildering haze of backstreets. They finally arrived at a cul de sac which stank of drains and rotting rubbish.
‘We’re here,’ she said. ‘Will you need any help backing out?’
The woman leaned forward and put her left hand on the driver’s shoulder. ‘You’ve been magnificent. Thank you for your help – and remember this is our secret.’
The driver blushed. ‘At your service, gnädige Frau.’
‘You should call me madame. I am French.’ The woman leaned further forward as if she were going to give the German soldier a collaborator’s kiss. The soldier’s blushing smile turned into an agonised grimace as the downward thrust of the knife cut deep through his chest into the aorta. As soon as Catesby saw what was happening, he put his hand over the driver’s mouth to muffle his ear-splitting scream. They waited half a minute until the driver had stopped twitching.
‘That might have been a mistake,’ said the woman. ‘And he looked like such an innocent boy.’ She paused. ‘Oh god! Our hands are covered in blood.’
The women pulled up her skirt. ‘Here, wipe your hands on my slip.’
As Catesby wiped his hands on the thin white fabric and sensed her tense thighs beneath, he experienced a totally inappropriate frisson – and immediately felt ashamed. When the woman finished wiping her own hands, she pulled her skirt down again.
‘I didn’t want to ditch the radio,’ she said. ‘They are gold dust.’
‘Then we need to get to a safe house quickly.’
The woman shook her head. ‘I think our best chance of getting away with the transmitter is to use the car. Can you drive?’
‘Yeah, but I think it’s a bad idea.’
‘We haven’t time to argue,’ said the woman. ‘You worked with Guingouin’s Maquis, so you know the countryside around here. Find us a hiding place.’
‘Okay, I’ll find a place to ditch the car and hide the radio. You go to a safe house and, if I succeed, we’ll rendezvous later.’
‘No, I’m staying with you.’
‘Another bad idea.’ Catesby got out of the car and began to push the body of the dead soldier into the footwell of the passenger seat.
‘Let me help.’
‘Help me get his tunic off. In fact, I’d better wear it.’
‘Undressing dead bodies,’ she said, ‘is never easy.’
They finally got the tunic off and, although the sleeves were too long, it wasn’t a bad fit. Catesby buttoned it up to the neck.’
‘The bloodstain is awful.’
Catesby nodded at the dead man. ‘If anyone asks, I’ll say he vomited over me as we got him in the car. He’s not dead, he’s passed out drunk. You sit in the back and pretend you’re an important guest of the Sicherheitsdienst. Shit, this is dangerous. Maybe we should run for it on foot.’
‘It’s too late.’ The woman nodded at an urchin of ten who was staring at them from behind a dustbin.
Catesby got out of the car, went over to the boy and leaned down. ‘Are you a brave lad?’
The boy nodded.
‘Have you heard of the Resistance?’
‘We love France. Do you love France?’
‘Yes – very much!’
‘You are now a member of the Resistance too. You must swear that you will never tell anyone what you have just seen.’
The boy saluted and Catesby saluted back, ‘Adieu, mon brave partisan.’
The boy held his salute as they drove away.
‘I suppose,’ said Catesby, ‘you thought that was pretty corny.’
‘I’m only thinking about what to do next. It won’t be long before they discover they were tricked.’
‘We need to get out of Limoges as quickly as possible and then keep off the main roads. The most dangerous bit will be crossing the Vienne.’ Catesby leaned over the dead soldier’s body.
‘What are you doing?’
Catesby found a Wehrmacht half cap on the car floor and put it on his head. ‘I need to look the part.’
Motor vehicles were rare on the roads of Limoges. Traffic consisted of bicycles, pedestrians, handcarts, horse drawn carriages and a few gazogènes, petrol vehicles converted to run on gas.
Catesby was impressed by how many rude gestures he attracted in his Wehrmacht uniform – as well as a few shouts of Ta soeur! – the short version of ‘your sister is a whore’. And once a teenage girl threw a stone at the rear window next to where Catesby’s companion was seated. The girl shouted putain, whore, assuming the wireless operator was someone sleeping with a German officer, before disappearing behind a crowd queuing for rations. Opinion was turning against the occupiers, but, as the public mood changed, the crackdowns became more severe.
Catesby’s original plan was to drive along the river looking for a bridge crossing that didn’t have a checkpoint. He soon realised that was a stupid idea – and began to panic when he saw the barbed wire barricades which forced traffic back into the town centre. A pair of gendarmes gave him a hard stare as he drove past. Perhaps, he thought, it was the custom of the Germans to stop and have a chat.
The bridges are too guarded. I think we need to follow the N141 towards Oradour-sur-Glane.’
Soon there were fewer and fewer buildings and they were in an open countryside of low hills. Catesby felt tenser than ever. He was going in the opposite direction from where the Maquis had a network of sympathetic villages and contacts.
‘Fuck,’ he said.
‘There’s a checkpoint up ahead.’
Catesby put one hand on the wheel so that he could reach over to the dead soldier. He nearly lost control and went off the road.
‘What are you doing?’
‘I’m trying to get his gun.’
‘Leave it – don’t stop and keep driving.’
As Catesby drove past, the gendarmes didn’t even look up. They were checking a pair of bicycles with heavily packed trailers.
‘It’s a black-market road check,’ said the woman.
‘Bastards.’ The gendarmes didn’t arrest the black marketers, they fleeced them instead. If anything, the occupiers and the collabos encouraged rather than restrained black market. The occupation stank of corruption.
A few minutes of calm followed before Catesby looked in the car’s rear-view mirror. They were being followed by a blue gendarmerie van.
‘What’s wrong now?’
‘Look behind us.’
‘Maybe it’s just a coincidence.’
‘We’ll see.’ Catesby abruptly turned the Citroën Avant off the main road. A moment later, the gendarmerie van followed.
‘I wish,’ said Catesby, ‘that we had a couple of Sten guns.’
‘This car’s a lot faster than their TUB van. Step on it.’
The next ten minutes were as exhilarating as they were frightening. They finally shook off the van somewhere around Les Conces, but their cover was blown. Catesby drove as fast as he could. He wanted to get to a farm near Cussac where he hoped they could stash the car. He eventually found the rough track that rose steeply up a wooded ravine. He stopped to remove a pile of brush which concealed the track leading to the abandoned farm. The woman helped. As soon as the brush was back in position, Catesby laughed.
‘What’s so funny?’
‘I’d better take this off. I don’t want to be shot by a Maquisard.’ Catesby removed the Wehrmacht tunic and draped it over the dead German.
They drove another four hundred yards to a ramshackle stone building which looked as if it had been long abandoned. Catesby got out of the car and walked over to the barn door. He tried the latch, but it wouldn’t budge. The door was locked.
‘Get a tool from the car,’ said the woman, ‘and break it open.
Once we’ve hidden the car, we can find the Maquis on foot.’ Just then someone whistled from the wood line.
‘They’ve followed us,’ said Catesby. ‘The gendarmes must have radioed for help.’
‘Let’s go.’ The woman took off her shoes and started running across the damp grass. But it was too late. A figure in uniform carrying a submachine gun emerged from the trees – followed by another also carrying a gun.
Catesby realised they were well and truly fucked. But if they were lucky, the body of the dead German might provoke a summary execution without torture. As Catesby raised his hands he realised that the uniforms – leather jackets, green trousers and boots – were not those of any Vichy militia, but those of Georges Guingouin’s Limousin Maquis. They were carrying British Stens.
‘Don’t move,’ shouted the Maquisard in front, ‘or you die.’
‘I’m on your side,’ said Catesby. ‘I was with Lo Grand in Saint-Gilles-les-Forêts.’
There was a silence as the two Maquisards conferred in whispers.
‘If you want more proof,’ said Catesby, ‘you can find a dead German in the car.’
The two fighters came forward. The lead one said, ‘What’s your name?’
Catesby answered with his codename, ‘Jacques Dubois.’
The other Maquisard said to his mate, ‘He’s one of the Englishmen who parachuted in just before we blew up the viaduct.’
The first one glanced at the woman and turned to Catesby, ‘And who’s your friend?’
‘I have my own tongue,’ said the woman. ‘My name is Marie and I am a wireless operator. You can find my radio in the car with a German soldier I killed earlier today.’
The second Maquisard went over to the car and opened the front passenger door. ‘Look. They really have brought a dead boche with them.’
The other Maquis shouldered his Sten and said, ‘There isn’t any room in the barn to hide the car. It’s packed with explosives and food. There have been a lot of parachute drops recently.’
The two Maquisards conferred in Lemosin dialect. Catesby only picked up a few words.
The first Maquisard shifted back into standard French. ‘We’ll take over now and my comrade will do the driving.’
Three of them crammed into the back seat. There was little conversation as they set off. The convention was to be tightlipped, not out of unfriendliness, but for security reasons. They addressed each other by codenames and never provided clues about places or operations. If someone was captured and broke under torture, they could only provide codenames and nothing that would connect to other people or places. No one wanted to know Catesby’s job or where the woman was from or how she ended up killing a German and stealing a Sicherheitsdienst car – but there was a body that needed to be disposed of. The Car finally stopped near a steep gully. They dragged the young German out of the car and heaved him to his final resting place where he would be food for carrion, flies, beetles and mites. The Maquisards drove on and dropped Catesby and Marie off at a safe house in Sussac.
The safe house was a grocery shop. The owners were part of a vast army of légaux, legals. The légaux helped the Resistance, but lived openly in the community and didn’t take a direct part in fighting or sabotage. Being a ‘legal’ could be more dangerous than being a guerrilla fighter. You hadn’t a place to hide; you were out in the open waiting to be rounded up.
After a late supper of bread, cheese and wine, Catesby wrapped himself in a blanket and curled up in a storeroom amid tins of beans, tomatoes and fish paste as there was only one spare bed. Just as he began to doze off, he felt a hand on his thigh. Catesby would never know her exact age or much else about her. She normally kept herself a mystery, but there were no secrets about what she wanted in the bedroom. For decades afterwards Catesby would remember that evening as the most erotic experience he had ever had. The image of the woman’s bloodstained slip – as she peeled it off and revealed her legs – haunted and excited him for the rest of his days.
About the Author
Edward Wilson is a native of Baltimore. He studied International Relations on a US Army scholarship and later served as a Special Forces officer in Vietnam. He received the Army Commendation Medal with ‘V’ for his part in rescuing wounded Vietnamese soldiers from a minefield. His other decorations include the Bronze Star and the Combat Infantryman’s Badge. After leaving the Army, Wilson became an expatriate and gave up US nationality to become a British citizen. He has also lived and worked in Germany and France, and was a post-graduate student at Edinburgh University. He is the author of seven novels, A River in May, The Envoy, The Darkling Spy, The Midnight Swimmer, The Whitehall Mandarin, A Very British Ending and South Atlantic Requiem, all published by Arcadia Books. The author now lives in Suffolk where he taught English and Modern Languages for thirty years.
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